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Posts tagged ‘Barry Lopez’

Best Books 2019

9780241143803I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling 2019 was a year when reading felt necessary, not so much as an escape from the world, but because the kinds of truths it communicates so often seemed an antidote to the increasingly demented and distracted world around us.

Of the books that helped, the best were smart and sane, but also not afraid to engage with the world as it is. This is especially true of the third instalment in Ali Smith’s marvellous Seasons Quartet, Spring, Lucy Ellmann’s massive Ducks, Newburyport, and Max Porter’s glorious Lanny. All three offer marvellous examples of the ways in which fiction can absorb and refract the rhythms and textures of its moment and fashion something revelatory from them. Charlotte Wood’s scabrous and hilarious The Weekend and Elizabeth Strout’s almost casually brilliant Olive Again achieve something similar in their portrait of the lives of the characters at their centre, as well as exploring the often neglected experience of ageing (in the case of The Weekend, it’s particularly fascinating to be reminded of just how bodily a writer Wood is, and of the degree to which all her books are engaged with questions of physicality and decay).

9780702260384.jpgOther books I loved included Tony Birch’s The White Girl, a book whose power lies not just in its subject matter, but in the devastating simplicity and clarity of Birch’s storytelling; Bernadine Evaristo’s Man Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other; Wendy Erskine’s marvellously compressed and blackly hilarious Sweet Home (seek it out); and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s portrait of New York life amongst the super-rich, Fleishman is in Trouble, a book that subverts the reader’s expectations in fascinating ways. Likewise I greatly enjoyed Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans, Sean Williams’ Impossible Music, and (although I suspect it’s not the best of the Jackson Brodie books) I loved every moment of Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky.

I also very much admired both Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, a pair of books that have the distinction of being novels by poets that deliberately situate themselves in the unstable, interstitial space between memoir and fiction. In the case of Lerner’s I’m not convinced some of the larger connections he wants to make quite come off, but the precision and brilliance of the writing and his control of structure and the competing perspectives of the characters is so impressive I didn’t care; in the case of the Vuong the parts I found most affecting were in fact in the second half, and in particular his portrait of his relationship with his former lover and their home town.

original.jpegSadly I was less excited by the final instalment in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, The End. Partly that was to do with the surfaces of the prose – in contrast to the deliberately artless language of the first five volumes a lot of The End has the slightly-too-buffed tone of a New Yorker profile – but it was also because it often felt like the book was rehearsing Knausgaard’s greatest hits (Here I am doing domesticity in excruciating detail! Here I am worrying about my art!). But in the end, even despite moments of brilliance, it just didn’t feel substantial enough to address the concerns that are so wrenchingly explored in the first five.

As I’ve said before, I find the language we use to describe fiction engaged with questions of environmental crisis fairly problematic, but however we choose to classify it, I don’t think there’s any question Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island is likely to become one of the classic texts of the field, not least for the incredibly sophisticated way it uses the liminal landscape of the Chesapeake to elide the boundaries between past, present and future to show us we are already living in the midst of a crisis, it’s just that (to borrow William Gibson’s aphorism) it’s unevenly distributed. I also loved Alice Bishop’s incredibly intense and beautifully observed depiction of the Black Saturday bushfires, A Constant Hum, which I would also see as a significant contribution to the literature of environmental crisis in general, and the literature that has grown out of Black Saturday in particular. And I hugely admired Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island, a book that makes fascinating connections between the past and the present by unpicking the intertwined forces of colonialism, capitalism and climate change, and Ben Smith’s starkly observed and very powerfully written breakdown narrative, Doggerland.

40121978._SY475_.jpgOf the speculative fiction I read the two standouts were Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail and Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers. If you haven’t read the Maughan, make the time: it’s a startlingly intelligent and profoundly political interrogation of surveillance culture and late capitalism. The Wendig is also wonderful: a seamless fusion of horror and science fiction that manages to be oddly timeless and incredibly topical. Ted Chiang’s Exhalation and Helen Phillips’ The Need are also terrific, as are Garth Nix’s wildly enjoyable Angel Mage and Margaret Morgan’s sleekly subversive The Second Cure, a book that feels more prescient almost by the hour. And although it seems to have passed a lot of people by, Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower is an absolutely fascinating exercise in what is as much a form of environmental writing as fantasy.

In recent years writing about the natural world has taken on a new urgency, charged not just with helping us see the world in new ways but with bearing witness to the scale of the transformation taking place around us. Of the non-fiction concerned with these questions I read this year, three books stood head and shoulders above the rest. The first was Robert Macfarlane’s stunning Underland. I’ve been a huge admirer of Macfarlane’s work since The Wild Places, but Underland is invested with an urgency and a depth of thinking that pushes it to a new level. It’s an astonishing book. 

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I was also hugely impressed by Sophie Cunningham’s wonderfully peripatetic City of Trees. Like Underland it’s a book that’s simultaneously focussed on the particular and the global, and asks vital and profound questions about our responsibilities to the past and the future. I loved it.

And finally there was Barry Lopez’s Horizon. If I had to make a list of books that I can honestly say changed my life, Lopez’s Arctic Dreams would be close to the top. I’m not sure Horizon is as easy to admire as Arctic Dreams – it’s a much more conflicted, troubled work, that’s closer in many ways to the kinds of autobiographical writing Lopez published in About This Life, but that sense Lopez is grappling with his legacy and trying to make sense of his larger project is part of what makes it so fascinating, and so profound. It’s a remarkable book, and one I suspect I’ll be returning to.

I also very much admired a number of the essays in Kathleen Jamie’s splendid Surfacing, David Wallace-Wells’ brilliant and completely uncompromising synthesis of the bad news on climate change, The Uninhabitable Earth, and Ian Urbina’s thrilling and often deeply confronting portrait of life on the high seas, The Outlaw Ocean. And closer to home I was incredibly impressed by Vicki Hastrich’s illuminating and expansive essays about the waterways of the central coast, memory and seeing, Night Fishing. And although it’s not about the natural world, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism should be compulsory reading for everybody.

I also very much enjoyed a few things from previous years, in particular Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Robbie Arnott’s magic realist Tasmanian Gothic, Flames, Rebecca Makkai’s wonderfully observed The Great Believers and Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon. I also finally got around to Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, which is precisely as good as everybody says it is.

As always there are also a number of things I didn’t get to but hopefully will in the next few weeks, in particular Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, Christos Tsiolkas’ Damascus, Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout and Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift. In the meantime I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and that 2020 is an improvement on 2019.

Arctic Dreams

800px-Polar_bears_near_north_poleA while back I did one of those pieces for a newspaper about the books that changed me. Articles of that sort are always slightly weird exercises, as much about selling a version of yourself via your choices as really addressing the question, and I have to confess I don’t remember exactly what books I chose on the day in question (though it’s a fair bet Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion would have been on my list, since the experience of reading it was the thing that set me on the path to becoming a novelist). But I do know that if there’s one book that genuinely has a claim on having changed me, it’s Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, a book which completely altered the way I thought about a whole series of questions about the environment and the way we understand it and our place in it.

Anyway – I wrote the following piece in 2001 for The Australian’s Review of Books, the forerunner to today’s Australian Literary Review, and I recently stumbled on a copy of it on my hard drive while I was working on a review I’ve got in the next issue of Australian Book Review. But what’s frightening about it is that the concerns it expresses were urgent then, eight years ago, yet we don’t seem to have moved any further towards addressing them.

Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams begins and ends with the same curious act of respect. A kind of bow, performed before the world he has encountered in the travels through the Arctic. “I took to bowing on these evening walks,” he writes. “I would bow slightly with my hands in my pockets, towards the birds and the evidence of life in their nests – because of their fecundity, unexpected in this remote region, and because of the serene arctic light that came down over the land like breath, like breathing.”

Much later this gesture is repeated, this time on the tip of St Lawrence Island, but in its later incarnation the gesture has moved closer to a kind of stillness, a loss of the self into the land and its rhythms:

“Glaucous gulls fly over. In the shore lead are phalaropes, with their twiglike legs. In the distance I see flocks of oldsquaw against the sky, and a few cormorants. A patch of shadow that could be several thousand crested auklets – too far away to know. Out there are whales – I have seen six or eight grey whales as I have walked this evening. And the ice, pale as the dove-coloured sky.”

The lyric beauty of Lopez’s writing helps transform this simple gesture into a literary artefact of great power and resonance. In his words we glimpse a world that trembles with life, and apprehend, within its detail an otherness we might not otherwise see, a kind of presence which the land embodies, ancient, complete unto itself.

Lopez is first and foremost a visual writer, possessed of a poet’s eye, and his account of the Arctic is anchored in his observation of its terrain, its light, and the animals that inhabit it. Yet it is observation rendered so as to make each moment transcend its detail. Whether it is golden plovers abandoning “their nests in hysterical ploys, artfully feigning a broken wing to distract . . . from the woven grass cups that couched their pale, darkly speckled eggs,” eggs which “glowed with a soft, pure light, like the window light in a Vermeer”, or “herds of belukha whale glid[ing] in silent shoals beneath transparent sheets of young ice”, his writing seeks out the moments when the land reveals itself, where the whole can be glimpsed in the part.

To see in such a way is to contain politics within aesthetics, to transform epiphany into manifesto. It is to suggest a way of seeing that is simultaneously a way of being, as if by seeing clearly we might find connection, and for a moment at least, glimpse the land as something which exists independently of us, possessed of its own meaning. It is, as Lopez puts it, “to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.”

“You know the land knows you are there.” A notion both simple and strange. Yet this sense of knowing and being known, of seeing and being seen is a way of allowing the imagination to begin conceiving of our relationship with nature as a dialogue, and of nature itself, whether embodied in an owl or the movement of light across the tundra, alive in its own right, “an animal that contains all other animals”, and not something given to us to do with as we desire. This is not science, but in its desire to understand nature, complementary to science, a poetics perhaps, able to contain both the scientific and the moral. Witness Lopez’s description of the intricacy of the polar bear’s physiology and behaviour:

“The interplay here among rest, exertion and nutrition that carries them comfortably through life is something that cannot be broken down into pieces. Like the skater’s long, graceful arc, it is a statement about life, the full exercise of which is beautiful.”

This transformation of aesthetics into politics is central to the tradition of nature writing Lopez is a part of. Ever since Thoreau walked his mile and a half to Walden Pond, writing about nature has been a political act, the expression and the embodiment of a homespun radicalism of peculiarly mystical bent. To see differently, to extend the reach of our imagination through contemplation into other ways of being is to be able to transcend our self, and by moving outside ourselves be granted a new perspective upon our place in the scheme of things. It is to sense the smallness of human history against the story of the planet, and to be made aware of our own impermanence.

There might seem something almost trivial in this appeal to imaginative contemplation given the scale of the environmental catastrophe that surrounds us. The biologist Edward O. Wilson argues that the “maximally optimistic conclusion” is that some 27,000 species become extinct each year, or 74 each day, 3 each hour. Similar estimates put the loss of biodiversity in the next century at somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent, that is to say, one quarter to one half of all species gone forever through human agency within the next 100 years. Given that we have catalogued only the tiniest proportion of this diversity, the vast bulk of these species will vanish unrecorded and unlamented, lost forever.

But it is precisely through the exercise of the imagination that we become able to see the world in such a way as to make sense of this loss, and to understand the cost to ourselves of the failure of imagination that has allowed it to happen. By attending to detail, by learning to see things as they are, we learn to dissolve our selves into the landscape, to become inhabitants of a shared world which exists in its own right, apart from our use of it, one to which we owe a silent respect, and an allegiance.

First published in The Australian’s Review of Books, © James Bradley

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